When I graduated from high school in June, 1973, I was only 17 years old. I would not turn 18 until late November, five months away.
Many potential employers would not hire me. The second they found out that I was still 17, they would politely tell me to re-apply after I had turned 18.
So out of desperation, I joined the business where my good friend from high school, Barb Cooper, was currently working.
She had begun several months earlier to sell encyclopedias door-to-door for a company I had never heard of before, Programmed Learning Systems. The company’s headquarters were in Ohio and they had decided to open a branch office in Flint, MI.
John Polese was the Flint branch manager. He gave me a brief interview and I was pleased to hear that being only 17 for a few more months was not a big deal to him.
John also told me a little bit about the company. He said that the encyclopedias were written and printed by Grolier, and that eased my mind a lot because I had heard of Grolier’s many different encyclopedias.
After two weeks of training on sales techniques and more knowledge about the encyclopedias we would be selling, I and a couple of other new hires were allowed to then go with the other employees out in the field.
We were not typical employees. We did not get hourly wages or any kind of benefits, we were only paid a specified commission for each set of encyclopedias that we sold.
I wasn’t too sure if I was going to be successful in this type of work but since I had no other job options, I figured that I’d try it for a little while. Maybe I would surprise myself with deeply hidden salesmanship skills.
We were all trained to speak from rote from a script that was pounded into us, repeated endlessly and practiced endlessly, until I could just about go through it in my sleep.
John Polese said that the script had been designed by psychologists and sociologists and was proven to be successful 98% of the time if the salesperson followed it to the letter.
There were sections in that script on how to overcome and eliminate every objection that could come up in our conversations with prospective clients. I really had a problem with that. The script felt too manipulative and perhaps even a bit bullying. But what did I really know? I had never sold anything before.
So John and his assistant manager, Scott, would take 3-4 of us in each of their cars and we would be dropped off in a particular neighborhood somewhere in Genesee County.
Barb and I usually rode together with John. Barb was John’s “golden girl” because she always had the most sales in our office and they were predominantly “good” sales. Good sales are when the customers have not cancelled their encyclopedia orders within the three-day limit law.
I, however, was truly horrible about making sales. I always felt like I was intruding on families when I knocked on their doors, usually around dinnertime. I also could never get myself to believe one of the sales inspiration tips that we salespeople were doing something very beneficial to these families.
I did not and could not wholeheartedly believe in my product like the sales seminars told us we had to do. The encyclopedia sample book I lugged around with me seemed cheaply made and too simplistic in its entries and definitions and descriptions.
I also had an absolutely sad opening sales pitch. When a door was opened after I had knocked, I would hold up my sample book and ask, “You don’t want to buy an encyclopedia set, do you?” “No, not really” and they would stand there waiting for what I would say next. Then I’d say, “Okay, well have a nice day!” and then I’d go to their neighbors’ homes.
My lousy sales skills were my fault but the company’s horrible response to their customers’ concerns after their checks were cashed bothered me a lot.
Sometimes we would get dropped off into a neighborhood that had already had an encyclopedia salesperson invade it months earlier. Sometimes they worked for other companies but sometimes they had worked for ours.
I was told too many times that the bookcases that were specially ordered and purchased had quickly fallen apart or that the sets of encyclopedias were missing volumes or about other problems. I would pass this information onto John Polese, our manager, but it was very disheartening to know that nothing was ever done.
I quickly lost what little faith I had in this company and in its products so my faint beginning enthusiasm rapidly disappeared.
So after that I stopped putting any real effort into making any kind of sales and I began to just have a good time for the few evening hours we were out in the field.
John would drop us off in a neighborhood between 5-6 pm and he would tell us where to meet as a group at 9pm so he could take us back to the office.
I would knock on people’s doors, smile, tell them why I was there but in a manner that made it obvious I really didn’t give a shit about selling them anything.
I actually was invited into their homes more often when I simply stopped caring than when I was trying so hard to do and say everything right.
Oh but I had so much fun! One time I was talking with a young couple in their living room. Their little baby girl was playing on a quilt on the floor between us and I spent half the time making her giggle with my funny faces and funny voices.
There was a wide arch that separated their living room from their darkened dining room. Every now and then out of the corner of my eye, I would see something that seemed to be a medium sized ball roll past that arch in the dark. Whenever I straightened up to see it better, it always disappeared out of sight.
Finally I was able to catch a better glimpse of that mysteriously rolling ball and it looked like a little critter was encased inside of it.
I interrupted myself to ask the couple, “What is in that rolling ball I keep seeing in your dining room? It looks like a big mouse!”
They laughed and laughed and then the husband got up and brought back the mysterious ball with the critter in it and gave it to me to inspect.
There was the cutest little animal inside the ball, all quivery-whiskery with a tiny little tail and beautiful big round dark brown eyes.
He had his wee hand-like paws on the inside of the ball and he kept pushing on it with greater strength than I would have ever thought he could possess. He obviously wanted to be on the floor again rolling around!
“What kind of an animal is it? And how did you get him trapped inside this ball and how does he get out?”
The husband replied, “That’s a hamster and he makes my baby giggle to watch him rolling his ball all around her. The ball comes apart in the middle. Hamsters have to get lots of daily exercise and he loves being in the ball exploring our whole house. The ball also keeps him safe from our cat.”
I giggled as I thought, ‘Yeah, I can imagine the cat would drool with happiness over a hamster sandwich!”
So I put the hamster ball back down on the floor and zoom! The ball took off like a rocket and began to rapidly roll around again. The baby clapped her hands with joy watching the hamster race around the room.
When I left their home later with a sales contract for an encyclopedia set, I told myself that because that hamster in his ball was one of the funniest things I had ever seen, one of these days, I was going to get a hamster in a ball too.
Several times I would be invited into homes and I would be sitting on a couch, giving my pathetic sales pitch to the several people in the room, when a lit joint would suddenly appear in front of my face.
The first time this happened, I was very unsure of the proper business protocol, that perhaps I would mightily offend them if I turned down a toke or two. But maybe I could also turn this into a sales opportunity at some point. So I hesitated a few seconds then I took a couple of hits and passed the joint on.
One time very early in the evening, I was invited into another pot-smoking home and for five hours I partied and grooved with these people and had a grand time. We toked, listened to great records, had deep conversations and they also invited me to enjoy their dinner with them too.
It was only when I finally realized that the frequent honking of a car horn all around that neighborhood must have been my boss, John, trying to figure out where I was, that made me reluctantly leave.
We all hugged goodbye and somebody shoved a bag of brownies laced with their great pot inside my portfolio as a going away present. The funny thing is, I had no clue what any of their names were and they never once asked me for mine!
Oh but John was red-faced with anger and I silently sat in the front seat as he ranted and raved all the way back into Flint. He told me I was irresponsible, immature, I had frightened him into an early grave because he was so afraid that something had happened to me, and how in the hell could I not hear him blowing his car horn for almost a half an hour and it’s a good thing the cops weren’t called on him for disturbing the peace, etc. etc. etc.
When he finally ran down long enough to take a big breath, I just silently handed to him the sales contract order I had obtained at the very first house I had gone to. The second house had been the party house but John didn’t need to know that!
“Oh! Oh, well good then, you were working hard I see. Well then, maybe I was too hasty about yelling at you but you really do have to keep better track of the time, Jeneane, so I won’t be so damned worried!”
“John, I am sorry, I did lose track of the time but I was so sure I would get the order that I didn’t want to leave until I did have the signed sales order in my hand. I hope you understand but I will do better about not keeping you all waiting on me in the future” I smugly replied to him as I surreptitiously bit into one of my brownies. Oh, yum!
As the fall weather took a strong hold, I really began to hate this job of trudging for hours from door-to-door in bone-deep chilly rain.
I must have frequently looked like a bedraggled homeless kitten because all of the older ladies would take one look at me soggily standing on their front porch and visibly shivering. Then with a lot of exclamations of “Oh, my goodness, child, you’re half-frozen!” they would grab me and pull me inside.
These kind ladies would wrap me up in their home-made afghans, make me hot cocoa and would give me plates and plates of home-made cookies or doughnuts or other tasty treats. Then they would ask me how old I was, why was I doing this for a living, where did I live, and I would answer them while I munched on their wonderful goodies.
I never had to fake the compliments either and they would beam and beam with happiness and pride about their baking skills. I loved those nice ladies because they reminded me so much of my beloved grandma. All they wanted was just to have some company and conversation and I was happy to give them that for as long as I could.
One early evening, John drove me and Barb and Sandy, another co-worker, into the city of Owosso. Owosso is the largest city in Shiawassee County and it’s about 30-40 miles west of Flint.
There was a huge apartment complex that straddled both sides of a dead-end street a few blocks from the downtown of Owosso. John told Barb to work one side and me the other side and that he would pick us both up at 10pm at the entrance to Barb’s side of the complex.
These apartment buildings were the lock-out type. In other words, you just could not open up the main door and walk in and begin to knock on apartment doors but you had to press somebody’s apartment buzzer and politely ask if you could be allowed in to try and sell encyclopedias.
Normally I had no problem getting into these types of buildings probably because I sounded like what I was, a teenage girl. But for some reason at the first building I went to in that complex, nobody would let me in.
Finally after bothering about 6 of the 12 or so residents in that building, a man sighed and said okay, he would let me in and he hit the buzzer so I could open the door.
I went to the first apartment door, knocked, and a girl, not much older than me, answered her door with a baby on one shoulder and a toddler clutching one of her legs. She let me come in and I volunteered to feed the baby its bottle while I talked with her about purchasing an encyclopedia set as an investment for her children.
She couldn’t afford it though so I stayed and chatted with her for another 15 minutes until the baby was thoroughly fed and burped. She thanked me as I left and even gave me a hug!
As I stepped out into the hallway, I noticed an Owosso police officer standing between her apartment and the stairs but I didn’t give him a second thought because I wasn’t doing anything illegal.
But just as I turned to go to the next apartment door, my left arm was roughly seized by that officer. “Just where do you think you’re going?”
I turned to look at him in amazement. “I was going to the next apartment. I sell Programmed Learning Systems encyclopedias.”
“Do you have a solicitor’s license? You just can’t go around bothering people unless you have a solicitor’s license” the police officer replied, still firmly gripping my arm.
“No, officer, I’m sorry, I don’t have a solicitor’s license but it is quite possible that my office manager, Mr. John Polese, has it with him. Could you please let go of my arm because you are hurting me.”
“Promise you won’t try and run away?” “I promise I won’t run away.” Then he released my arm so that he could take a notebook and a pen out of his pocket.
“What’s your name and address and phone number, who do you work for and what’s their address and phone number? How old are you? Do you have a driver’s license with you or some other form of identification? How come you were not aware that you need to have a solicitor’s license to do your door-to-door sales inside the city limits of Owosso?”
I answered all of his questions and showed him my driver’s license. I also told him that no, I was not aware that I had to have a special license to sell encyclopedias in Owosso, but that I presumed that my manager, John Polese, would know about that and that he would have the license with him.
The police officer snorted in disbelief as he then told me that those solicitor’s licenses were issued individually and not just to a business. They also cost $400 per license.
He said he was also pretty sure that even if my manager knew any of that, he would bet that no licenses had ever been purchased or issued to either the manager or anybody else within our company.
Then he said that it was worse in my case because I was under the age of eighteen and therefore prohibited from purchasing a solicitor’s license. So that was another strike against my manager for having me do illegal activities as a minor.
My eyes opened wide with the implications of what that police officer was saying. “Am I being arrested? Is my boss, John Polese, going to be arrested too?”
The police officer said that for right now, he was going to take me to the police station, write a report up and then speak to his commanding officer about the situation.
My eyes got even bigger. “Are you going to put me in jail?” I felt like I was going to faint.
He snorted again, and said no, not at this time at least. That wasn’t very reassuring at all! But at least he was kind enough to let me sit in the front passenger seat and not in the back behind the screen like a criminal.
So at the Owosso police station, both the police officer and his commanding officer asked me many different questions. What exactly did I sell, where was the branch office in Flint, how and where did we get dropped off, how and when were we picked back up, etc.
The police officer at one point asked me to do my whole sales pitch which embarrassed the hell out of me, especially since those two huge men sat there with faces made of stone.
I think the commanding officer felt sympathetic towards me after 10 agonizing minutes when he said it was okay, I didn’t have to do the whole thing for them, whew!
So then they asked me to sit on the long bench at the side of the reception area in the front of the station while they discussed what they were going to do with me.
I could just about hear my knees rattle with fear and tense anticipation. The officer in charge of the front desk and the phones kept giving me sympathetic looks and that made me feel a lot better as I gave him shy smiles in return.
At one point he got up, went into another room and brought out a cup of tea and a doughnut for me for which I profusely thanked him. It was now almost 9pm and I hadn’t had anything to eat since that morning.
After another 10 minutes of waiting, both the commanding officer and the police officer who had brought me to the station came out and asked me to step back into their room.
I sat down and the commanding officer said that because I was a minor and so obviously unaware of the strict solicitation laws in their city, they were going to keep me here at the station until my father could pick me up.
“My dad? Oh, great!” I squeaked. “I think I’d rather be put in jail! He hates this job! Can’t I call some friends of mine and have them pick me up instead?”
“No, because we have to release you to a responsible family member and we have already called your father so he will be here very soon.”
“All right, I guess” I said with a resigned and doomed voice. “So am I being arrested at all or is my manager being arrested? Or do I just get to go home or what? I do have to let my boss know what happened to me because he will worry himself to a frazzle if I don’t meet him in about an hour when I’m supposed to.”
“No, I’m going to keep your appointment for you and we will have a nice, friendly chat. I’m pretty sure that he will think twice about dropping off minors to sell his stuff for him in Owosso again” said the police officer.
I inwardly gulped about how that “nice and friendly chat” would go because my boss, John, had quite the Italian temperament and I wasn’t too sure that things would remain “nice and friendly” between those two.
My dad got there almost immediately after that and that meant that he must have broken all of the speed limits in making that quick of a trip between Flushing Township and Owosso.
He looked like he was about ready to have a heart attack when he strode in with his face all red and his fists already clenched up into tight balls.
My dad signed some papers that I presumed made him legally responsible for taking me off the Owosso cops’ hands or something like that. He then curtly ordered me to get into the station wagon and I quietly waited for him to either explode in anger or calm down.
“What pissed me off the most is that son-of-a-bitch cop asked me over the phone did I know what you did when you left my house every evening? Like you were some kind of prostitute or something! I wanted to punch that arrogant motherfucker right in his smug face when I walked in!’
I sagged down into the seat, trying to melt into it if I could. When my dad begins to use the phrases “son-of-a-bitch” and “motherfucker”, head for the hills, folks, head for the hills!
“So where is it you are supposed to meet this boss of yours?” “Um, dad, let’s just go home, okay? The police officer already said that he was going to meet Mr. Polese and have a ‘nice and friendly chat’ with him.”
“Well, I’m going to have MY OWN chat with your boss, do you understand? So tell me now where is it you are supposed to meet him?”
So I reluctantly told him and after directing my dad on where to go, we arrived at the arranged meeting place just as John drove up.
Barb was already there waiting to be driven back to Flint. She knows my dad and his temper quite well and so she raised her eyebrows at me in a silent question, “What the hell is going on and why is your dad here?” But all I could do was shrug my shoulders at her to say, “Can’t talk about it right now.”
My dad had barely jerked the station wagon into Park when he jumped out, ran up to John’s car, pulled open the driver door and dragged John out.
My dad had John pushed up against the side of his own car, his face less than an inch away from John’s. John’s eyes were so big and frightened that I almost snickered.
“What the fuck do you think you are doing, dragging my little girl (I groaned in humiliation over that phrase) around to sell your stupid shit in cities where YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT A LICENSE IS NEEDED TO SELL THERE!!!” my dad furiously yelled in John’s face.
“YOU are supposed to take care of all of your employees, especially my daughter, because she was almost arrested tonight since she didn’t have a solicitor’s license! A license YOU should have known she would need because that is a part of YOUR god-damned job!”
“Wha..wha..what do you mean Jeneane was almost arrested? I’ve never been arrested or had any of my people arrested here before!” John stuttered back at my dad.
“I just retrieved her from the city of Owosso police station where she was brought after several complaints from residents of an apartment building that somebody was trying to illegally enter their building. The police officer who brought Jeneane in and his commanding officer later decided to not arrest her as they legally could have done. They decided to let her go into my authority since she is a minor and since she was so obviously unaware that she needed a license to sell door-to-door,” my dad patiently explained to John but without releasing his firm grip on John’s shirt.
“But the fact remains that as her manager, and as her boss, YOU are supposed to be aware of all of the laws concerning door-to-door sales in each community in which you want to do business! So I am holding YOU personally responsible for Jeneane’s mistake this evening and if she decides she still wants to work for you, YOU WILL treat her and your other employees much, much better in the future. Do you understand me, Mr. Polese?” my dad thundered into John’s face.
John vigorously and silently nodded his head in agreement and understanding.
My dad then released his grip on John, and turned around to get back into the station wagon. It was then that we all noticed that at some point during this ‘nice and friendly’ discussion my dad was having with John, the police officer who had said he was going to meet with my boss as well had already arrived.
He was leaning against his police car, with a big grin on his face, and he then came over and shook my dad’s hand. “I couldn’t have said all of that any better than you did, sir!”
John then kind of sagged down on the side of his driver’s seat as the cop strode up to him and told him, “You had best learn from this gentleman and not have this kind of mistake repeated again. We take all of our laws very seriously around here and I strongly suggest that you do your homework a lot more thoroughly from now on!”
Then the police officer got into his car and drove away. John put his head into his hands and made a little groan. And my dad curtly ordered both me and Barb into the station wagon to take us both to our homes.
I saw Barb open her mouth to protest against this treatment by someone who was not her parent, even if it was someone she had known for quite a while, but I vehemently shook my head at her as if to say, “Now is not the time to bitch! Just get in!” So she sighed and got into the back seat of the station wagon with me.
On that long drive back I filled Barb in on what all had happened. She agreed that she had never heard of anyplace requiring a license to sell things door-to-door either but that yeah, if that was a requirement, then John should have known about it before he just dropped us off anywhere he wanted.
Barb asked me what was it like to be in jail and I had to explain that I hadn’t really been in jail, that they had never put me into a jail cell, just mainly had me sit on a long, hard bench at the front of the station.
I told her, “But I did get hot tea and a doughnut!” and we both laughed and laughed because how could cops not have doughnuts?